Operation Harpoon (1942)
Operation Harpoon was one of two simultaneous Allied convoys sent to supply Malta in the Axis-dominated central Mediterranean Sea in mid-June 1942, during the Second World War. Operation Vigorous was a westward convoy from Alexandria and the convoy of Operation Harpoon travelled east from Gibraltar. Two of the six ships in the Harpoon convoy completed the journey, at the cost of several Allied warships. The convoy of Operation Vigorous was driven back by the Italian fleet after many air attacks.
Until the Italian declaration of war and the French surrender, the Mediterranean was an Allied lake. The French Navy and the British Mediterranean Fleet outnumbered the Italian Regia Marina. The French fleet became a potential threat in Axis hands and so was attacked by the British in Operation Catapult, the Attack on Mers-el-Kébir and French bases in North Africa were closed to Allied shipping. The Regia Marina possessed modern battleships and heavy cruisers and bases in Italy and Libya provided central Mediterranean naval and air bases across British supply routes. The fall of Greece and Crete in 1941, extended the reach of Axis forces, which became able to intercept Allied shipping from Alexandria and Suez by air.
Italian and German armies in Libyan territory also threatened Egypt and control of the strategically important Suez Canal. A catastrophe for the Allies in Egypt might lead to Britain losing control of Middle Eastern oil supplies and their capture by the Axis but this depended upon Axis forces in North Africa receiving adequate supplies from Italy. The British base of Malta threatened the Axis supply route to Libya but needed regular supply and reinforcement. By mid-June, 1942, Malta's supply situation had deteriorated, because the Luftwaffe had joined the Regia Aeronautica to isolate the island and starve its population and had neutralised its offensive capacity. Axis armies had advanced into Egypt, acquiring advanced air bases and denying the British safety over much of the eastern Mediterranean.
Aircraft were regularly flown to Malta but food and fuel supplies diminished and the British made great efforts to supply the island. Two convoys, codenamed Harpoon and Vigorous, were gathered, to sail simultaneously and split Axis forces. To contest the two Malta convoys, the Axis air forces had a total of 347 Italian and 128 German aircraft in the western Mediterranean, of which 175 Italian aircraft were based in Sardinia, with the rest in Sicily; 53 Italian and 122 German aircraft were based in the eastern Mediterranean; a total of 650 aircraft, although not all were operational.
Royal Navy losses gave the Regia Marina naval supremacy in the east-central Mediterranean. The Italian Fleet and Axis air forces took the offensive, blocking or sinking many ships in at least three large British Malta convoys in the Second Battle of Sirte, the Battle of Mid-June and Operation Harpoon–Operation Vigorous, all tactical victories for the Axis but ultimately leading to Allied strategic success with the survival of the Malta base.
Harpoon left Gibraltar on 12 June 1942, with six merchantmen (the British Troilus, Burdwan and Orari, the Dutch Tanimbar, the American Chant and the tanker Kentucky) carrying 43,000 short tons (39,000 t) of cargo and oil. The Harpoon convoy was escorted by the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo, nine destroyers, the fast minelayer HMS Welshman and smaller ships. Distant cover was provided by the battleship HMS Malaya, aircraft carriers HMS Argus and Eagle, cruisers HMS Kenya, Charybdis and Liverpool, with several destroyers. The two aircraft carriers embarked 16 Sea Hurricanes, six Fairey Fulmars and 18 Fairey Swordfish.
The first air attacks were made by Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 torpedo bombers on 14 June and sank Tanimbar, south of Sardinia. Liverpool was damaged and towed back to Gibraltar by HMS Antelope, under air attack (arriving on 17 June). Later on 14 June, the covering force returned to Gibraltar, short of the Strait of Sicily. The fast minelayer Welshman was detached and travelled to Malta alone, delivered cargo, then sailed back next day to rejoin the convoy escorts.
At dawn of 15 June, the lightly defended convoy was subjected to a coordinated attack near Pantelleria, by Axis aircraft and the ships of the Italian 7th Cruiser Division (cruisers Raimondo Montecuccoli, Eugenio di Savoia and destroyers Ascari, Oriani, Malocello, Premuda and Vivaldi), commanded by Vice-Admiral (it:Ammiraglio di divisione) Alberto Da Zara.
The five fleet destroyers in the convoy escort made a smokescreen and attacked the Italian squadron but the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Bedouin and the P-class destroyer HMS Partridge were hit by the Italian cruisers and disabled. The Italian destroyer Vivaldi was hit by the British destroyers and caught fire but was taken in tow and saved by Malocello and Premuda. Italian reports claimed that their destroyers closed to within 6,000 yards (5,500 m) of the merchantmen and scored a hit on one of the freighters. Both forces broke off the engagement at approximately 8:00 a.m. and the Italians lost track of the convoy.
The 10,000-long-ton (10,000 t) tanker Kentucky, Chant and the freighter Burdwan, already disabled by air attack were abandoned by their escorts, when the Italian cruisers returned shortly before noon. Burdwan and Kentucky were sunk by gunfire from Raimondo Montecuccoli and the destroyers Ascari and Oriani. Kentucky was also struck by a torpedo launched by the Oriani. Chant had already been sunk by bombs when the Italian squadron found her smouldering wreck site. The cruiser HMS Cairo and the minesweeper HMS Hebe also received hits from Italian gunfire. The bulk of the escorts and two cargo ships reached Malta.
Partridge was recovered and took Bedouin in tow, then the Italian cruisers with two destroyers reappeared; the tow was cast off, leaving Bedouin adrift. At 2:30 p.m., Partridge managed to withdraw and run for Gibraltar but Bedouin had already been hit by at least twelve 152 mm (6.0 in) shells plus several near misses and listed heavily. Bedouin was sunk by an aerial torpedo from an Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bomber that was shot down by the Bedouin as it sank. Bedouin, in return shot down the aircraft that inflicted the fatal damage. Twenty-eight of the crew were killed and more than 200 were taken prisoners of war. The majority of the survivors were rounded up by the small hospital ship Meta.
In the evening, the surviving ships ran into a minefield off Malta. The destroyers Badsworth and Matchless and the freighter Orari struck mines and were damaged; the Polish destroyer ORP Kujawiak sank after midnight, with 13 crew lost. Two of the six merchantmen reached Malta, Orari and Troilus, the former having lost some cargo in the mine explosion. HMS Hebe also struck a mine and suffered further damage, requiring a month in dry dock.
This was the only undisputed squadron-sized victory for the surface forces of the Regia Marina in World War II.
Clearly this was an Axis victory and a tactical victory for the Italian Navy. Part of the convoy did get through to Malta, but the British suffered far heavier losses than did the Italians and Mussolini would later personally present medals to Da Zara and some of his men for their efforts. It would be the only squadron-sized surface naval victory of the war for Italy.— Greene & Massignani
Captain Hardy, in his official report of the battle wrote " During the final day of "Harpoon" three merchant ships in convoy were lost due to enemy air action. Of these, CHANT received three direct hits, but BURDWAN and KENTUCKY were, I believe, not touched but disabled by near misses. But for the enemy surface force, both of these ships might have been brought in.". Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm fighters shot down 13 Axis aircraft while ship's gunners destroyed 16 more, for a total of 29 Axis aircraft shot down during the battle.
Giorgio Giorgerini said that the "Battle of Pantelleria" (as it is often referred to in Italian sources), while not a complete strategic success (with two merchantmen managing to reach their objective), was a satisfying tactical success (and one of the few instances in which Italian ships fought aggressively enough against their opponents), even though somewhat exaggerated beyond its own merits in later historiography.
The supplies delivered by Operation Harpoon were insufficient and fuel for the Malta's Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft ran low, in great part due to the sinking of the tanker Kentucky.[lower-alpha 3]
On 1 September 1942, the award of various decorations for participants in the operation were announced in the London Gazette, there were six appointments to the Distinguished Service Order and one bar, two Distinguished Service Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals and nine officers were Mentioned in Despatches.
Order of battle
- Force X - convoy escort - Capt. Cecil Campbell Hardy
- light cruiser (AA) HMS Cairo # (flag)
- minelayer HMS Welshman
- destroyers: HMS Bedouin†, Marne, Matchless ##, Ithuriel, Partridge #
- escort destroyers: HMS Blankney, Badsworth ##, Middleton, ORP Kujawiak†
- minesweepers: HMS Hebe ##, Speedy, Rye, Hythe
- minesweeping motor launches: ML-121, 134, 135, 168, 459, 462
- Convoy WS-19:
- transports: Burdwan†, Chant†, Orari ##, Tanimbar†, Troilus
- tanker: Kentucky†
- Force W - cover force - Vice-Admiral Alban Curteis
- Force Y - replenishment force
- fleet tanker: Brown Ranger
- corvettes: HMS Coltsfoot, Geranium
- light cruisers
- † - ships sunk
- # - ships damaged
- ## - ships heavily damaged
Oriani and her crew.jpg
The Italian Poeti-class destroyer Oriani
The Italian Condottieri-class cruiser Raimondo Montecuccoli
Anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo
Italian destroyers approach to Harpoon convoy's stragglers.jpg
The Italian destroyers just about to open fire on the stragglers of the convoy, the disabled Kentucky and Burdwan
The end of SS Kentucky, in flames after being hit by Italian cruiser Raimondo Montecuccoli main guns. She was later torpedoed and sunk by the destroyer Oriani
The Sinking of HMS Bedouin.jpg
The destroyer HMS Bedouin, crippled by gunfire from the cruisers of the Italian navy's 7th Division and sinking after an aerial torpedo hit some hours later
- 28 killed on HMS Bedouin, 15 on HMS Liverpool, 13 on ORP Kujawiak, 9 on HMS Badsworth, 2 on HMS Cairo, 1 on HMS Partridge, 3 on the auxiliary minesweeper Justified, 23 on Tanimbar, 4 on Chant, 3 on Burdwan. Wounded and prisoners:213 from HMS Bedouin and 3 from Chant Sources www.naval-history.net and www.wrecksite.eu
- 10 on Ugolino Vivaldi and 2 on Eugenio di Savoia, in addition to air crews.
- "But as the all-important US tanker Kentucky had been sunk the oil and kerosene situation became desperate."
- Sadkovitch,1994, p. 257
- Greene & Massignani, 1998, pp. 196–204
- Arnold Hague: The supply of Malta 1940-1942, Part 1 of 3
- Woodman, pp. 329–330
- Llewellyn-Jones, 2007, Appendix J
- Thomas, 1999, p. 158
- Bragadin, 1957, p. 181
- Cocchia, 1980, p. 131
- Bragadin, 1957, p. 184
- Woodman, 2000, p. 339
- Ireland, 2004, p. 133
- HMS BEDOUIN (L 67) - Tribal-class Destroyer
- Greene & Massignani, 1998, p. 238
- Cernuschi, 2010, p. 42
- Arnold Hague: The supply of Malta 1940–1942, Part 1 of 3
- Bragadin, 1957, p. 185
- Greene & Massignani, 1998, p. 238
- Cunningham, 1948, p. 4495
- Bragadin, 1957, p. 186
- Grehan and Mace, 2013, p. 153
- Llewellyn-Jones, 2007, p. 67
- Giorgerini, 2001, p. 374
- Smyth, 1970, p. 132
- Smyth, 1970, p. 132
- The London Gazette: . 28 August 1942. Retrieved 29 July 2009.
- Bragadin, Marc'Antonio (1957). The Italian Navy in World War II. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute. ISBN 0-405-13031-7.
- Cernuschi, Enrico; Brescia, Maurizio (2010). Le navi ospedale italiane 1935–1945 [Italian Hospital Ships 1935–1945] (in Spanish). Parma: Albertelli Edizioni Speciali. ISBN 8-88737-286-1.
- Cocchia, Aldo (1980) . The Hunters and the Hunted: Adventures of Italian Naval Forces. Navies and Men. trans M. Gwyer. New York: Arno Press. ISBN 0-40513-035-X.
- Cunningham, Admiral Sir Andrew B. (1948). Despatches on Mediterranean Convoy Operations January 1941 – August 1942. London: HMSO. OCLC 181729384.
- Giorgerini, Giorgio (2001). La guerra italiana sul mare. La marina tra vittoria e sconfitta 1940–1943 [The Italian War at Sea. The Navy Between Victory and Defeat 1940–1943]. Le scie (in Italian) (2nd ed.). Milano: Mondadori. ISBN 978-8-80450-150-3.
- Green, Jack; Massignani, Alessandro (1998). The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943. London: Chatham. ISBN 1-885119-61-5.
- Grehan, John; Mace, Martin (2013). The War at Sea in the Mediterranean 1940–1944. Barnsley: Pen and Sword. ISBN 1-47383-736-7.
- Ireland, Bernard (2004). The War in the Mediterranean 1940–1943. Barnsley: Leo Cooper. ISBN 1-84415-047-X.
- Llewellyn-Jones, M. (2007). The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Convoys: A Naval Staff History. Naval Staff Histories. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-39095-8.
- Sadkovitch, J. J. (1994). The Italian Navy in World War II. Contributions in Military Studies. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-31328-797-8.
- Smyth, John George (1970). The Valiant. London: A. R. Mowbray. ISBN 0-264-64510-3.
- Thomas (1999). Malta Convoys: 1940–1943, The Struggle at Sea. Barnsley: Leo Cooper. ISBN 0-85052-663-9.
- Woodman, Richard (2000). Malta Convoys, 1940–1943. London: Jack Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5753-4.